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Four Generations of Oil in Lyden Family’s Blood

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AUSTINTOWN, Ohio — Paul Lyden, vice president of Lyden Oil Co., leans back and points to a framed picture behind him on his office wall. In it, three young men pose beside an early incarnation of a small tanker truck.

“That’s my grandfather and his two brothers” who, along with their sister, founded the company in 1919. “In those days, they sold oil that was used to fire coal and power the boilers that ran just about everything,” Lyden says.

That first generation of owners – grandfather William Lyden Sr., his brothers Patrick and Michael, and sister, Mae – laid the foundation for a long-time Mahoning Valley business that shows no signs of slowing down.

Today, Lyden and his brother Breen, the president and CEO who works out of the Toledo office, are the third generation of owners of this family business. A fourth generation, in the wings, is being primed. Lyden Oil specializes in selling bulk wholesale lubricants to industrial, automotive, commercial and agricultural users. It also sells gasoline and diesel fuel.

“We market about 14 million gallons of lubricants per year,” Lyden says. “We’re the largest supplier of Ford Motorcraft lubricants in the country. It’s a very valuable franchise for us.” The company’s general delivery area covers Ohio, Michigan, western Pennsylvania, eastern Indiana and northern West Virginia.

And to think it all started with just $700.

“My grandfather’s two brothers and his sister came up with the money,” Lyden says. Soon, a representative of the American Oil Co., better known as Amoco, contacted the partners and signed them to a distributorship agreement. “That’s how they started,” Lyden says, “and they got their first trucks.”

There were few gasoline stations in the Mahoning Valley in 1919, and most of the lubricants went to serve the region’s booming industrial economy. Over the years, the company expanded its customer base, securing larger accounts and growing to 170 employees and 90 trucks.

“We are among the Top 10 as far as lubricant marketers go in the United States,” Lyden notes, adding that the company recently became one of the first to be certified by the American Petroleum Institute under its Motor Oil Matters, or MOM, program. “It means we’re one of the leaders in this industry.”

Lyden says the company’s geographic position gives it a competitive edge because it can access three pricing markets.

“We’re fortunate in this neck of the woods,” he says. For example, Ohio is tied to the Midwest and Chicago price market. The New York Mercantile Exchange, or Nymex, governs Pennsylvania’s price points. West Virginia, on the other hand, is tied to the Gulf Coast market.

Should the price in one market rise – say, the Gulf Coast market spikes as a result of a hurricane in Florida –Lyden Oil can quickly shift its purchases to the two lower priced markets that are easily accessible from Youngstown. “It gives us a huge price advantage,” he says. “We watch this constantly.”

Prices are largely based on where crude oil is trading. “Right now, it’s at $50 a barrel,” Lyden says. “It changes every day after 5 p.m.”

On this day, the lowest wholesale price of a gallon of diesel fuel was $1.92, gasoline $1.43. Once taxes, transportation, and delivery costs are factored in, gas is sold at its retail price through service stations.

That’s a far cry from decades ago, Lyden recalls. He tells of a letter his father, William Lyden Jr., sent a customer that stipulated a set price of 37 cents a gallon for fuel for the entire month. “Now, it changes every day,” he points out.

Lower fuel prices aren’t necessarily bad for business, Lyden explains, noting the company’s margins remain unchanged. However, the plunge in oil prices have affected major producers and customers such as Vallourec Star in Youngstown, which manufactures oil country tubular goods, or OCTG, pipe for that industry. That plant is in the midst of a shutdown because of weak demand.

Lyden Oil buys its bulk lubricants from depots in Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. “Most come from east of the Mississippi,” Lyden notes. It has operations in Youngstown, Toledo, Massillon, Lansing, Mich., and Detroit.

Lubricants are trucked from these sites to Lyden’s warehouse on LeHarps Drive in Austintown, where it is discharged into large storage tanks. Another distribution center is on Meridian Road.

At the warehouse on LeHarps Drive, workers offload lubricants such as hydraulic oils and motor oils, and then transfer the contents into five-gallon buckets, 16-gallon kegs or 55-gallon drums, Lyden says. These drums are stacked and stored until they’re ready to move. “We have between 60 and 70 truckloads a month of bulk coming in,” Lyden says. “They move out of here fast.”

Warehouse manager Ken Kirk handles between four and five truckloads a day. Fourteen trucks are dispatched to customers from the LeHarps Drive and Meridian Road centers. “They backhaul a lot of stuff,” Kirk says, “so they come back with product.”

The average distribution area lies within a 300-mile radius, Kirk says. “We like to get to Cleveland before the rush, Pittsburgh before the rush – we’re there on a daily basis. Our drivers make 10 to 15 stops and are back the same day,” he says.

All of the workers in the warehousing operation have gone through hazardous material training and spill-control training, Kirk notes.

One of the biggest challenges is handling the company’s diverse customer base and its growing product line, notes Laura Lyden, Paul’s wife and general manager of the company.

“Matching the proper products to the customer is a big challenge,” she says. “I think we do a really good job though, because we have a well-educated staff that are dedicated.”

She says that one of the key factors of Lyden Oil’s success is that it’s still a tightly knit family-run business – dogs included. As you walk by, one is seen napping in its bed.

“We try to treat every customer like they’re our family,” she says. “We feel we serve them on a level that’s higher than most of our competition.”

“It’s never dull,” Laura Lyden notes, and she finds it gratifying to see their children moving up in the company. “It’s really rewarding,” she says.

Their son, Paul Lyden Jr., is the company’s logistics manager and buyer, and their daughter, Jennifer Lyden Uhrich, handles several financial duties. Jennifer’s husband, Mark Uhrich, is the information technology director.

“I wasn’t really sold on it being my career when I was younger, even into college,” Lyden Jr. says. “It wasn’t until I got involved that I really thought I was going to be here for awhile.”

Lyden Uhrich agrees. “It’s something that’s been there your entire life, so you know a lot about it,” she says. “There’s a lot of it that’s subconscious that you didn’t even know that you knew.”

The advantage is that both grew up in the industry with oil in their blood, so to speak. “It does help with the technical details of the industry and the who’s who of the industry,” Lyden Jr. says. “You’ve always known these people and you’ve always had a connection with them on some level.”

His job is to see that Lyden Oil’s logistics and buying operations run smoothly and efficiently. “Needless to say, this stuff isn’t made in our backyard,” Lyden Jr. remarks. “So, we have to go across the country to get the products and in the most efficient way possible.”

Among the biggest challenges Lyden Oil faces are what the family sees as excessive regulatory control of the industry and small business in general, the vice president says. “This administration is not friendly to energy,” Lyden says of the Obama administration. “We lack an energy policy.”

Despite what Lyden perceives as an economy still struggling to recover from the Great Recession, Lyden Oil remains busy. “I’d say we’re doing fair to good right now, not great” he reports.

“We are busy, though, and we’ve got the trucks rolling tomorrow,” Lyden says. “We are energy in motion.”

PICTURED: Four generations of the Lyden family have guided Lyden Oil Co. since it was founded in 1919. Above are the third and fourth generations to be involved in the business. From left, standing, are Jennifer Lyden Uhrich, Mark Uhrich, Paul Lyden Jr. and Laura Lyden. Seated is company Vice President Paul Lyden.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.